It’s a Heat Wave

It is 108 degrees outside my front door. That’s hot. But it is a dry heat, shorthand for the moment you walk into an air-conditioned room, you sweat like a stevedore. It also brings on combers of nostalgia for Michigan, feet dangling off a tethered raft in Gull, Gun, or any lake, including Michigan, waves nibbling at my toes, reading summer books that widened my horizons.

July on a raft in a Michigan lake

Edna Ferber was from Kalamazoo, Michigan, once known as the celery capital of the world and a place dear to my heart. I whipped through Cimarron, adored Saratoga Trunk, and still love Giant, one of the ultimate summer books filled with indelible, strong, resilient, tough female characters. I often think of Vashti and wonder what the heck was going on in Luz’s mind. Edna Ferber told big stories about big people, personal growth, and bigotry. That’s a lot to deal with at sixteen years old wearing a bikini on a raft in a lake with boys waterskiing close enough to splash your pages and rock your raft. I also devoured Michener’s Hawaii and Leon Uris’s Exodus and Jessamyn West’s Friendly Persuasion while sashaying about in my favorite madras two-piece.

In between big beach books, I delighted in Dauphine du Maurier. My Cousin Rachel, Rebecca, and Jamaica Inn. Slathered with Coppertone, I adored the dashing Jem Merlyn. I re-read Jamaica Inn recently and wondered at my choice. I suspect it was that Jem was a bad boy, not good, not unredeemable, but a bit sexy and more than a tad sullen. I had the same crazy adoration for ‘Wild Whip’ Hoxworth (Hawaii), Ari Ben Canaan (Exodus), and Jess Birdwell (Friendly Persuasion). What teenage girl wouldn’t love him or them? Or Daphne du Maurier with her brooding houses and equally brooding men, slightly overwhelmed heroines, and crazy housekeepers. She introduced me to a tightly controlled world of threat, romance, and creepy moors.

This brings me to the best read while babysitting during a thunderstorm. The only book I ever threw at a ceiling was Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart. I was babysitting, the kids were all in bed, their parents late, thunder roared, rain rasped against the windows. I kept watch in the living room, shades drawn, listening to the night rumble and whack. I turned the page; the heroine sees a shadow gyrating in front of a burning funeral pyre. A window shade snapped open. The book hit the ceiling at about ten miles an hour. The joy of it is that Mary Stewart’s booksare as fresh as ever with their strong female leads, engaging, slightly sexy male protagonists, and intriguing travelogue plots.

I still have the paperbacks of each of these books, some with water spots on them. My copy of Giant made an appearance on the cover of a magazine, red-checkered tablecloth, paper plates, sunglasses, and Giant open spine up. Most of the books have a price of $.75 or less printed on the cover. Giant, because it was giant, cost $1.25.

Those hot, humid, muggy Michigan summer days, replete with gigantic mosquitos and buzzing cicada, sit on my shoulder as I write. In particular, my book Booth Island captures the essence of being a teen vacationing on a lake when anything is possible, including love, death, and Tiger Tail ice cream.

For fun, try this summer book quiz. MATCH THE BOOK TITLE with the book’s first line and marvel at the few words used to set the scene. Answers will be in next month’s blog. To get you started, the first one is a gimme:

First Line of Book Title of Book and Author
Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.Saratoge Trunk – Edna Ferber
All the Venables sat at Sunday dinner.Madam, Will You Talk? – Mary Stewart
Nothing ever happens to me.My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier
They were interviewing Clint Maroon.Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
The whole affair began very quietly.Jamaica Inn – Daphne du Maurier
It was a cold gray day in late November.My Brother Michael – Mary Stewart
They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.Cimmaron – Edna Ferber

The Readers’ Responsibility – Valid Reviews

As readers, I would like to suggest that we have a responsibility to leave reviews, especially if we love the book. Reviews help other readers discover new authors, ones not touted by major publishers but by independent publishers and self-publishers. Getting a good book noticed as an independent (whether publisher or self-publisher) rests almost entirely on the reader’s shoulders. It isn’t hard to leave a review. In fact, most e-books end with the option. And as reviewers, we don’t have to write a treatise explaining what we liked or didn’t like; just assign a star from 1-5 on most sites.

Besides helping the book get noticed and sell, reviews help authors in three ways; 1) eat, 2) improve so that your next reading experience is better, and 3) keep a publisher publishing an author you like.

Unless a book has ten reviews on Amazon, it is at a disadvantage. So, for authors, ten reviews is a decent but frustrating goal. As a publisher and author, I ask that you take the time to give any Bodie Blue Books book a star rating, if not an actual review.

A Common Scale

The biggest challenge to comparing reviews across books is that there is no consistent, holistic scale used across readers. Simply put, each five-star review is given on a personal scale that may not be consistent book to book, much less across genres. For instance, a five-star book may be one you were driven to finish that delivered a rip-snorting solution to the mystery. Others may consider it a three because something was missing for them, even though they finished it in one reading.  

Momentary rant: Nothing is more frustrating for the author than to get a great review and a three-star score when the same review written by another reader would result in five stars. Worse, some readers seem to believe that they have the sensibilities of a New York Times book critic. Here is a hint: most don’t. What we do have is an absolute sense of what we enjoy as readers and what annoys us.

Back on topic: I spent a good deal of my business career teaching people how to evaluate student creative writing on a holistic scale. Reviewers were trained to apply a set scale consistently to rank students writing. A simple holistic score is easy to use. Further, it assesses the overall book not that one annoying swear word or mistake in the setting or time, but your overall reading experience. Below are a couple of example scales.

Example 1

5 Enjoyed it a lot, could be convinced to love it, a lively entry into the genre.
4  Enjoyed it, had elements that I loved, a solid entry in the genre.
3 Ahhh, liked it but average for the genre.
2  Expected more, below average for the genre 
1 Argh, got lost in a black hole

Examples 2 and 3

5 Loved it.I can’t wait for the next book from this author
4  Enjoyed it.I look forward to reading this author again
3 OkayI would consider reading this author again
2  Readable but . . . I would have to be convinced to read another book by this author 
1 Where is my red pencil?I have banished this author from my brain

The Point

A single holistic scale applied across online book sites would provide buyers a consistent, realistic method to compare books. Not having such a scale supports the dominance of mega-authors with big advertising budgets and faithful fans, not because the books are better, but out of habit and accessibility. This leaves writers who write as good as or better books in the weeds. Because sites, such as Amazon, rely almost entirely on reviews to determine who gets the best placement for advertisements, which books are featured, and which books pop during a genre search.

So, I beg you, when you finish reading a book, leave a review. Until we have a common scale, use your best judgment but be consistent in applying it. And remember, every review you leave helps an author EAT.

On Writing and Liberation

During a recent zoom meeting with other writers, we discussed a new toy I bought that frees me from losing the notebooks that I use. The group of four split in half over the writing process. Two did everything on the computer, and two used paper and pencil in the form of the small spiral-bound notebooks for plot notes while writing. Clearly, I was one of the latter. Which got me thinking about the act of writing a book.

It is as individual as the writer. For instance, those who write historical fiction split into two camps, as well. One camp does all their research upfront, adding to it as needed. Others get the idea, plunge in, and do the research as they roll along, adjusting as need be. There may be a third camp of folks who immerse themselves in the period, then let rip.

Three of these books had title changes.

Some writers are uncomfortable knowing the ending because then there is no point in telling the story.  Some wouldn’t start a book without knowing exactly how it ends. Some writers never talk about a book while writing it because, once told, the ink is gone from the bottle.

Some know the title and write to it. Some let the book title itself. Which is how a book titled Gridlines ends up Saving Calypso.

Some writers outline: for others, the first draft is the outline. I suspect writing an outline first is the professional way to attack it, especially with a series. But there is also a lot to be said for letting the characters tell their own story. Admittedly, you don’t always end up where you thought you would. Characters have a habit of misbehaving.

Your characters should be breathing before you begin to write, in my world anyway. If you know them, and they know you, you can rely on their help to get out of tight jambs. And, if in your mind they walk the earth, each character will have their own voice and pitch. Writers split on character building, too.  Some use templates that provide essentials about their characters, and some use notebooks as the characters grow and change. It happens, the good guy becomes the bad, the bad guy—good, the slimy one the romancer, the romancer the killer. Writing is a messy business. Though I suspect for some, it is well ordered, precise, and disciplined. Not me. I am admittedly messy.

I do know if you have a story that you think is worth telling, a mystery in your heart dying for the light of day, or a newspaper article that sets off a chain reaction like a nuclear plant melting down, then the first step is to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair. The daily discipline of writing is how you get 70,000 and 100,000 words between a printed cover.

Once you are seated, you can draw, outline, noodle in notebooks, talk to a recorder, or just open a blank page and start typing. The point is there is no right or wrong way, only getting started. Like a lot of writers, I’ve been struggling recently to write anything at all. During the telephone call above, my writer friends confirmed that they, too, were in the same fix until now. What changed? We are all vaccinated. The world feels a little freer; no more worries every time you step outside your bubble. It turns out in addition to applying your bottom to a chair, feeling safe frees the inner storyteller.

For more on each book, or

A Little Exercise in Writing

I had the opportunity to join the Sisters in Crime crowd for a course in short story writing given by Art Taylor. It reminded me that I have a long-haul brain and a swift to explain psyche. It isn’t a terrific combination. I’m fighting both all of the time.

The writing of extremely short (700 words) stories was covered . . . a bit. I found the idea intriguing and liked the promised discipline of it. Really, how do you tell a good tale in seven-hundred words? I’m barely started by then. Heck, I can write seven-hundred words about the Canadian Shield lining Highway 14 in Ontario in seven minutes flat, fingers flying. But should I? Too often, I just want to tell everyone everything about everybody. I spill the beans right out of the can the minute the lid is off. It is a nasty habit.

It means that I spend days after the first draft is completed moving all of the spilled beans around to where they belong in the story. And sometimes, they don’t belong at all. And sometimes, they get left in when they shouldn’t, leaving a soggy bit of mess.

So, I suggested to my Bodie Blue Books partner that we each write a seven-hundred word short story for our upcoming newsletter. For me, it became the perfect exercise in combating my twin demons. Seven-hundred words are not many (heck, I’ve already used nearly a third of them). Like any book or short story, your seven-hundred-word tale needs a beginning, middle, and end, acts one through four, and a climax or conundrum. The enforced discipline of writing a super short story should be obvious by now.

For success, you need to question each word, its placement, purpose, and usefulness to the story right up to the hopefully satisfactory denouement. Each word should serve the purpose of the narrative. One word, one message, one point, one emotion, you can’t waste any of your allotted words, nor should you ever, no matter the length of your manuscript.

Let’s say your characters are awaiting an incoming storm of megalithic proportions. Do you describe the sky or their apprehension? Can you do both? Is it necessary to do both? Which has the most effect on the narrative? The mood?

My tale is a ghost story derived from an actual event in my life. I began writing it as it had occurred at our century-farmhouse packed as it was to the gills with the Uninvited. I felt the need to provide the provenance for the ghost. Then I realized his provenance was the mystery.  I had to walk back from my habit of spilling every character’s motivation and back-story, sometimes all at once like spewed pea soup. I worked, and honed, and edited, and . . . recalibrated a lot.

Frankly, the discipline of the limited word count drove me to rethink my writing and re-motivated me. Not a bad way to spend four frustrating days. And the exercise inspired this blog. All good, eh? (505 words)

So, suppose you decide to write an extra-short story? I suggest you limit yourself to precisely seven-hundred words to tell a tale you wouldn’t be ashamed to see in print. It will be time well spent. I leave you with that thought and 145 perfectly-good words to use anywhere needed.

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Weather or not?

D. Z. Church

My father, a flight instructor at the time, decided eight was the perfect age to teach his eager daughter to fly. I had a logbook, and we had a plan that I would solo as soon as I could, which was at 16. Never mind that the plan went horribly awry when my father decided to become a Meteorological Research Pilot and famously fly through hailstorms, erupting volcanoes, and hurricanes.*

When we started, I couldn’t see out of the cockpit (too short), so I learned to fly by instrument. Yes, this is the wrong way round. Usually, you start by using the actual horizon to keep your wings even, your nose up or down as the earth passes quickly below. Some would argue that nothing passes quickly below a Piper Cub. Once, in a Lake Michigan gale, my father flew a Cub halfway across the state backward.

There are very few instruments in a Cub, altimeter (how high), airspeed indicator (how fast), compass (where), oil gauge (obvious). After one lesson in a Piper Cub, with me unable to see out and fly level, Dad stepped me up to a Cessna 150 equipped with an attitude indicator. The attitude indicator provides information such as up, down, level via an artificial horizon, in short, the plane’s general relationship to the earth and air. Attitude is everything, or so Bernoulli and guidance counselors advise us.

So, I learned to trust my instruments before I trusted my eyes. One of the greatest mistakes that pilots make in bad weather, especially new ones, is mistrusting their instruments, think John F. Kennedy Jr.. Dad warned me to trust science over intuition when the horizon was obscured, meaning in the air and in life. I thank him for that and this; once you’ve navigated through bumptious clouds at the controls of a light plane reading the wind, clouds, and sun to stay up and on course, you never take the earth or the sky for granted again.*

Gust Front outside Miles City, MT (L. M. Zinser)

Or the adventures! My husband and I were shrink-wrapped in a tent by a tornado once (once was enough). I was in a one-hole tin outhouse as it was struck by lightning and watched St. Elmo’s Fire flow down the metal walls. A hurricane made landfall while I was on Assateague Island visiting the Chincoteague ponies. I outran it to safety, the rain hitting the car on the way down and back up. I’ve tried to sleep through a hundred mile an hour winds ripping shingles off the roof, watched drenching rain turn into a muddy flood, seen twin tornadoes dance, and lost a dinghy while sailing in a squall and dove in after it. And that’s not all the sky has tossed my way.

Now, when I write, the cast of the sun, the thunder of rain, and the howl of the wind sit on my shoulders, waiting a chance to cause havoc in a thriller. They know I can’t help myself. Head First, the second book in the Cooper Quartet, is set in Central California in the winter of 1972-73 during an El Nino that changed the entrance to Big Sur State Park forever. Pay Back, the third book in the Quartet, takes place during the Fall of Saigon. Late April 1975, the monsoons started early, drubbing Saigon the day before the North Vietnamese stormed the city. Perfidia is set on a Caribbean island given to sparkling sun and afternoon squalls while Saving Calypso unfolds in the Sierra Nevada’s wind and fire zone. Booth Island (just released) is in a lake in Canada given to late spring rains and rough water. Like I said, I can’t help myself.

I blame Dad; he gave me the sky. And the Navy. I ended up at a Meteorology and Oceanography Command (not much of a stretch) though I joined hoping to become one of the first female attack pilots (taller but still too short).

Postscript: It is no accident that Byron Cooper is a Navy attack pilot in the first two books of the Cooper Quartet. I may have been writing vicariously.

*If you want to know more about the adventures of a Meteorological Research Pilot, you might look into the memoir Pilot Log Book Lies and More by Lester M. Zinser. Warning, it is a bit technical.

*If you haven’t read The Cloudspotter’s Guide (Gavin Pretor-Pinney) yet, run out and get a copy. Besides being a terrific read, it is a good resource for all things cloud.